Pre-election Vojvodina

Cable TV for darkness

Milena Putnik

FRI, 08 SEP 2000

Belgrade, September 1, 2000 - By recommendation of federal minister of information and president of the committee of the Yugoslav United Left (JUL) for Novi Sad, Goran Matic, owners of cable television networks in Novi Sad have stopped carrying TV programmes of Montenegro, Croatian Radio-Television 2 and Hungarian Danube TV; as "collateral damage", Croatian Radio-Television 3 and OBN from Sarajevo have also been shut down.

After its television station had been stolen from it in the beginning of the nineties when it was incorporated into the system of Radio-Television Serbia (RTS) – Novi Sad was once again plunged into complete television darkness, the state has taken the remote controls into its hands and reduced the choice between one and the same, as it pleases. In the beginning of this week, distributors of cable television programmes received a recommendation to interrupt broadcasting programmes of specified television stations and as of Tuesday the following message could be read on television screens: "Esteemed users, according to instructions of the Federal Ministry of Information, and pursuant Article 27 of the Law on Information, re-broadcasting of the following TV programmes has been interrupted: Radio-Television Montenegro, Croatian Radio-Television 2, Croatian Radio-Television 3, OBN and Danube TV. Thank you for understanding". On Thursday, the mentioned channels could not be seen any more. Respectable Novi Sad lawyer Vladimir Horovic warned from the waves of Radio 021 that this was violation of the Constitution and its provision on freedom of information of citizens.

The curt distributors’ information was sufficient for the citizens of Novi Sad to understand that this was a political matter and that the controversial programme was in fact the satellite programme of Montenegrin Television; that everything else was phony, especially the reference to the provision of the law on the ban of re-broadcasting foreign programmes. Montenegrin satellite programme was watched by a large number of the citizens of Novi Sad – not so much for its "state daily news at half past seven", although by choice of information on developments in Serbia it carried it was a decent substitute for Radio-Television Serbia – because the Montenegrins carried programmes of independent television production from Serbia: from "Objektiv" show on developments in Serbia broadcast every evening, to contributions of Belgrade productions of VIN (Weekly Independent News), Mreza (Network) and ANEM (Association of Independent Electronic Media). Once a week, that channel broadcast a show on developments important for political life in Voivodina called Voivodina SAT1 (produced by the Centre for Political Education – CPO – in cooperation with a team of journalists, members of independent group UrbaNS). Due to that, by shutting down the information programme of Montenegrin Television on cable networks, the media space of the city was struck another severe blow; it had already been badly damaged on April 6, when a fire devoured half of the building of the Workers’ University and in it all editorial offices of non-governmental media and local highly influential Radio 021. Novi Sad has neither an independent nor a local TV station; although for the past four years Novi Sad is controlled by a stable coalition of five opposition parties, the project of foundation of city television called Apolo has not been completed. Due to the lack of information from the local sphere, people from Novi Sad "peeped" into daily news on Croatian television (HRT) and followed the political life after changes in January elections in the neighbourhood; language barrier prevented majority of spectators from Novi Sad to watch the programme of Budapest Danube TV, although it had contributions on developments in Serbia and Voivodina – including a review of Yugoslav press as part of the block in which newspapers are read from all (Hungary’s) neighbouring countries; obviously at "relevant addresses" its harmful effect on Voivodina Hungarians is believed to be important. It seems that the "collateral damage" of the minister’s recommendation are HRT channel 3 which broadcasts mostly sports news and films, and Sarajevan OBN which was not even broadcast by all five cable networks in Novi Sad.

The recommendation of the Ministry was respected and implemented by the distributors of cable TV expeditiously in only three days; if unofficial information is correct the distributors were given the deadline by the end of the week, but they carried it out before its expiry. Obviously they estimated that the financial damage due to cancelled subscription would be smaller than the one due to disobedience. Cable TV is broadly accepted and watched in Novi Sad: the estimates of the number of users varies from (the humble) 27 thousand to about 50 thousand. If the latter figure is closer to reality, it would mean that almost two thirds of the population have chosen to pay additionally for the possibility to choose information, so the influence is proportional to the number of voluntary subscribers; (not) watching RTS is paid for anyway by everybody through the tax on electric power meters. Nobody doubts that the motive of the "recommendation" is political and directly connected to the election campaign.

Independent Society of Journalists of Voivodina (NDV) believes that the action towards subscribers of cable TV reminds of "undeclared state of emergency" and finds argument for its assessment in the fact that "such a recommendation in the beginning of the election campaign is intended to shut down all sources of information of the citizens of Novi Sad on political developments in order to inform them only via state channels and para-state media which are in abundance". The union of journalists also warns that "by taking over the leadership of JUL city committee minister Goran Matic has shown the citizens his undoubted sense of democracy and legal state, and by referring to the Republican Law on Information he is meddling in the jurisdiction of the state of Serbia". The citizens of Novi Sad have anyway, without a moment of hesitation, understood the words "federal ministry" as Goran Matic; since June when he was appointed president of Novi Sad branch office of JUL, people were waiting to see what is the task he was entrusted with. There was also no doubt, regardless of the fact that the federal ministry was marked as the bearer of the "recommendation" that legal foundation for shutting down programmes of five television stations in cable network was found in the notorious Republican law; Article 27 of the Law on Public Information bans ("public media cannot"…) media in Serbia to carry or re-broadcast programmes "of political and propagandist content" in Serbian or languages of ethnic minorities "of foreign broadcasting organisations founded by foreign governments or their organisations".

In defending the minister’s decision, spokesman of Novi Sad JUL Minja Bolesnikov, reminded journalists at a press conference that the law "bans re-broadcasting of information programmes in Serbian or related languages which are financed by foreign governments". He refused to comment on the question whether Television Montenegro was a foreign station.

It seems that along with the list of "the undesirable" the distributors have been given a list of television channels which were to be broadcast in the future. On Thursday (August 31), just before the traditional hour reserved for state TV daily news (19.30 h), one of five distributors of cable TV, instead of the third channel of HRT, started broadcasting the programme of a federal TV station – YU Info; instead of the second channel of HRT local "Most" (Bridge) could be watched – a programme of recently founded television station promoted by local leaders of Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) without denying that this party supports it; instead of Montenegrin programme it is possible to watch Euronews, and instead of Budapest satellite Danube TV, the programme of the second channel of Hungarian state Television M2!

Shutting down of five television channels was experienced by political parties as a pre-election coup. The Novi Sad committee of the Civil League of Serbia (GSS) issued a protest ("Why are they afraid of objective informing when they brag in advance with election victory?") in which they appealed for specific, non-violent action in reply to the "shameful move" of the ministry in order to enable the citizens access to information they are entitled to; the League of Social Democrats of Voivodina also reacted ("This is another in a series of dictatorial attempts to shut the citizens in cages which will be controlled by them, and then call it patriotism and sovereignty; it is not impossible that the next decree will prescribe what and when the citizens will be allowed to watch, listen, eat and breathe") with the appeal to the citizens to vote in the elections "and end the decade-long evil which has no limits of oppressing its own people for the sake of satisfying sick ambitions of a few persons".

Immediately, as of Thursday evening, an alternative started operation: in Novi Sad, at three central points of everyday gatherings, shows of independent television production, VIN, ANEM, Mreza and UrbaNS, were broadcast on large screens by video-beam. Novi Sad office of G17 Plus, along with the information where street television can be watched, stresses: "Our intention is to preserve mental health of the citizens of Novi Sad and prevent extinguishing of freedom of expression". People of Novi Sad have already experienced collective consumption of inaccessible information: in the beginning of the wars "which Serbia did not participate in", at the time when media were reduced to "mirrors of the truth", Independent Society of Journalists of Voivodina broadcast from its window "oral newspaper" called the "Novi Sad Window". News on video-beam were announced in other cities of Voivodina. It is not certain that ministerial "recommendation" will bring the expected profit to its authors after all. This manner of proving the thesis that the opposition does not exist may prove to have a severe boomerang effect. Most of the citizens of Novi Sad will not break their contracts with distributors of cable television; it simply is not part of their mentality. But they will not devote themselves to watching the program of RTS either. They will just remember.

Panicky Fear
Estimating for AIM that switching off of five television stations in cable network of Novi Sad is "just another proof that the regime is in panicky fear of these elections and it is an attempt to shut down all channels which convey stands different from the ones they would like to see", president of the Reformists of Voivodina (RV) Mile Isakov says that this is ("however terrible and ugly that may be") - expected, and to the question how come Television of Montenegro happened to be subject of the law on re-broadcasting foreign programmes, he answers that "for them" Montenegrin television is "enemy’s television, because it speaks against this regime, against this system of Yugoslavia and this regime in it". Isakov mentions that it is "formally unacceptable that it is impossible to watch the programme from a republic which is part of this country" but he says that "there is experience from before", that once before the possibility to watch any programme but Serbian has already been eliminated and that dissolution of the system of Yugoslav Radio-Television preceded dissolution of Yugoslavia: "Nowadays this is repeated and it could be a bad omen and a premonition of the same denouement". However, Isakov adds that "the elections are the next thing here" and that it remains to be seen who will win, so the denouement may not be the same.

Original article